I grew up in an extreme evangelical Christian church. The type of church where kids go to Bible camp in the summer, pastors blame natural disasters on gay people, and Harry Potter is burned at the stake.
My church was dangerously conservative and left many of us who grew out of it with life-long scars and trauma — especially for those of us who weren’t straight. These types of churches really epitomize everything that is wrong with modern religion: denial of scientific reality, obsessive clinging to traditional gender roles, and moral hypocrisy to the point of absurdism. The damage done to people I know and love by the church can never be undone.
Yet, during a short visit last week to the church where my adult sister now volunteers, I was reminded that church wasn’t all bad. I sat in the lobby chitchatting with her, I watched handfuls of middle school girls run by giggling. I watched parents come in, embrace, and ask how the family was doing. I saw the look of familiarity and comfort on the faces of members as they stepped into the door — and I realized I missed that feeling.
Despite being outspokenly anti-religious now, there are some aspects of the church that I truly do miss, and these qualities are hard to find anywhere else.
When I was in 6th grade, my mom was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkins lymphoma. A stay-at-home mom of six, she had dedicated her life to caring for us. Suddenly, she was fighting to even stay alive.
While my mom was lying sick in the hospital bed, the ladies from church stepped up. Church ladies made us lasagnas, casseroles, soups, and ordered us pizza. Mrs. Light drove us to soccer practice, dance class, and any number of after school activities. Mrs. Herbert watched the little ones to get them out of my mom’s hair. Mrs. Richmond let me come over and hang with her daughter whenever I needed to escape the hecticness of it all.
While our families lived towns apart, spanning three or four different school districts, the Church Ladies were an important resource for my family when we needed help. I honestly can’t imagine how that time in our lives would have functioned without them.
On Christmas, the church collected presents for the poorer families to make sure all kids had something to open Christmas morning. While I remember the church presents usually being pretty lame, there’s nothing quite like waking up to a giant pile of gifts on Christmas morning. Their generosity provided some of my favorite childhood memories.
Church was always a place we could go to hang out, and a place where I could find my friends. By the time I was 14 or 15 years old, I was part of a small rag-tag group of kids who were rebelling against the church’s teachings from the inside — and those girls became some of my best friends. Even though we were long past believing that “For God so loved the world…,” we found community with each other in that building.
It turns out, that feeling of community is really important.
As an adult, I started subconsciously seeking out communities that replicated this practice of support, comradeship, and physical community space. When I became an animal rights activist, I found myself drawn to an organization called Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). DxE was doing powerful, disruptive, actions that were generating a conversation about animal rights on a national level (you may remember them from the June disruption of Kamala Harris).
But more importantly, DxE was building a community. For people who feel alone in this world (as everyone does at some point, I imagine), a community of people working together for a greater good is incredibly powerful. When I attended their annual forum in May of 2016, I was struck by the similarities with church — including introducing yourself to the people in the rows around you, and singing moving, emotional songs together.
When a leader asked members to come to the altar/stage to take the “Liberation Pledge,” I was floored by how clearly ripped out of church this move was. It felt like accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior all over again.
Some people called DxE a “cult” because it replicated these religious patterns of community building. Despite many exaggerated claims in her article denouncing DxE, Carol J. Adams, a vegan feminist theologian, recognized that the group was using church tactics to recruit and build membership:
“DxE has adopted church like tactics to build community, not just singing songs and houses where members lives together, but more importantly “DxE Connections,” appears to be modeled on the Mormon Home Teaching Program.”
DxE has been successful in it’s movement-building precisely because it uses these tactics rather than in spite of them as some may hope.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Churches themselves have a long history of community activism on both sides of the aisle, from the Tea Party to the civil rights movement. Some research has even examined the specific factors that influence community activism in churches (gospel music and prayer groups are particularly effective). DxE was modeling itself off of the successful social movements of the past — church membership included.
For those of us who have left the religious churches of our past behind but still crave the community these organizations provided, our options are limited. More secular churches like Unitarian Universalism could be an option, but these churches vary greatly in their religiosity from town to town and certainly are not for everyone.
Other types of social clubs, especially sports like a women’s crew team or a local cycling club, may fill some of the gaps. However, without a commitment to a greater cause and identity beyond the club, these organizations may fail to be emotionally fulfilling in a holistic way.
In reality, most people of my generation who need community are seeking it out online.
While online communities are capable of providing emotional support for people, and sometimes even material aid for those in need, the true support of an “IRL” community is missing. This is especially true in online communities where users can hide behind anonymous screen names and avatars, avoiding any real accountability for their impact on the community.
Our online “churches” may be just as ideologically extreme as traditional ones, but they fail to provide any legitimate support for their members. The exceptions to this, like r/SantasLittleHelpers which organizes Christmas gifts for kids on Reddit, are few and far between.
It seems that every form of community comes with its pros and cons, and finding community and purpose is just a matter of deciding which downsides you can live with.
Personally, I know I’ll never return to church in any meaningful way; but I will probably keep seeking out that mystical sense of community that church provided. There is really is nothing else like it.
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